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American Nazi summer camps
August 11, 2014 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I have one great party trick. Anytime someone asks me if I’ve ever come across something really cool while working in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, I tell them about the time we had what looked like footage of a Boy Scout camp and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue.
Audrey Amidon, of the (US) National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab, tells the story of that time they found 1937 film footage of an upstate New York nazi youth summer camp.
posted by MartinWisse (76 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The "Don't read the comments" protocols are set at Omega Level for that video BTW.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 5:33 AM on August 11 [14 favorites]


Agreed, I'm reaching for the bleach eyewash now.
posted by arcticseal at 5:37 AM on August 11


What is that third flag that they raise. There is an American Flag and the Nazi Flag - and a third another with a lightning bolt or something. What is that ?
posted by Flood at 5:43 AM on August 11


Not making this up: the reCAPTCHA field for the comments wanted me to enter "HEBREW".
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:45 AM on August 11 [35 favorites]


The lightning-bolt flag is apparently the Hitler Youth emblem.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:47 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


This had nothing to do with the Boy Scouts. The Germans established organizations for Volksdeutsche youth in a variety of countries. These camps were associated with the German American Bund
posted by blob at 5:47 AM on August 11 [10 favorites]


Comments aside, this is a fascinating glimpse of a footnote to history. I wonder what the children who attended those camps grew up believing.
posted by arcticseal at 6:05 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I wonder if any of them ended up like the poor schmuck from Oregon in Band of Brothers.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:10 AM on August 11 [5 favorites]


They didn't say it was a Boy Scout camp, just that it looked like one until you saw the Nazi stuff.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:20 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


This had nothing to do with the Boy Scouts. The Germans established organizations for Volksdeutsche youth in a variety of countries. These camps were associated with the German American Bund

Yah, the article covers that.

Comments aside, this is a fascinating glimpse of a footnote to history. I wonder what the children who attended those camps grew up believing.

I had the same thought. What did they think when they arrived at the camp in the first place? What were the households like that sent their children to such camps?
posted by Atreides at 6:23 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Another film, intended to encourage boys to attend the camp, includes a perhaps unintentionally ominous intertitle that translates to “German boy you also belong to us.”

Obligatory.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:39 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


What did they think when they arrived at the camp in the first place? What were the households like that sent their children to such camps?

Not directly responsive to your questions, but: you should check out Fellini's Amarcord. Relevant scene here.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:42 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


They didn't say it was a Boy Scout camp, just that it looked like one until you saw the Nazi stuff.

OP writes "and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue." I'm willing to believe this is a typo, but it is what it is.

Speaking of forgotten history, NB that there were Young Pioneers of America camps backed by the Communist Party at this time as well.

They were big into indoctrination back then. Same as it ever was, I suppose.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:43 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Also obligatory.
posted by ColdChef at 6:43 AM on August 11 [6 favorites]


I kind of wonder what their dads, who were surely called up within a couple of years, thought about it. "I'm killing Nazis and my kid goes to Nazi camp" seems to be a level of cognitive dissonance beyond what I've seen before.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:44 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Scout-style indoctrination also reminds me of Arlington Road.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:46 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


There should probably be quotes around "Boy Scouts" in "and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag [...]". To clarify that they looked like Boy Scouts, but they were not, in fact, actual Boy Scouts.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:46 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Yeah, wouldn't want to besmirch the proud name of the Boy Scouts here on the blue...
posted by Windopaene at 6:49 AM on August 11 [15 favorites]


The thing is, in 1937 it was probably possible to think that there was no contradiction between being a good American and sending your kid to Nazi camp. Lots of ethnic Americans at the time participated in home-country activities like summer camps and youth groups and athletic societies, many of which had a specific ideological bent. The US wasn't at war with Germany, and the Nazis were the governing party of Germany. I'm not excusing it: two of my great-grandparents died at Auschwitz, and I am truly not down with the Nazis. But I don't think this would have seemed remarkable at the time, and my hunch is that by 1941, when the US entered the war, most of these people would have realized that they had to choose between being a Nazi and being an American, and they would have gone with being an American. I mean, that would be an interesting research question, but it would be my hunch.

And there ends the Nazi-defending portion of my day. Defending Nazis was not what I expected to do when I woke up this morning!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:55 AM on August 11 [30 favorites]


Obligatory?

I *hate* NY Nazis!
posted by mazola at 6:57 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


There was a teacher in my hometown that was fired for starting one of these. He would become well known during the war as Lord Hee Haw.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:57 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


What were the households like that sent their children to such camps?

Probably well to do and respected; for example, Henry Ford; Charles Lindbergh.
posted by TedW at 6:58 AM on August 11 [6 favorites]


>> IndigoJones: OP writes "and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue."

OP was quoting the article in the second link.
posted by JohnFredra at 7:11 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


There was a German American Bund Rally in New York city in 1939.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:13 AM on August 11


Yeah, the German-American Bund used to be quite big, especially in cities with big German immigrant populations like Chicago. When I lived there in the late seventies and early eighties, there were people who remembered Nazi flags flying on Lincoln Avenue, not that far from a big Jewish neighborhood, actually. I don't know that there were that many German-Americans who were really behind the whole Nazi Party platform, though; probably at least part of it had to do with lingering feelings of shame over the anti-German sentiment that swept America during WWI, and the early support that Hitler's regime had from people like Ford and Lindbergh.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:16 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


ArbitraryAndCapricious: The thing is, in 1937 it was probably possible to think that there was no contradiction between being a good American and sending your kid to Nazi camp.


I wonder, though, at the specific location of the Nazi summer camp of the OP, at Windham in Greene County, NY? Whether there was - even then - some/any ideological provocation/statement in its address?

Greene county is the closest possible neighbor of the Borscht Belt counties:

wiki: Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a colloquial term for the mostly defunct summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties in upstate New York that were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews from the 1920s up to the 1970s.[1]

We have a summer place on one of the Sullivan county lakes (where there are still loads of Jewish- mainly meaning kosher catering - sleepaway summer camps). In fact the one nearest to us states proudly on its website that it was started in 1937!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:19 AM on August 11


So far as I understand it, the Nazi ideology was a lot to do with healthy strong (Aryan) children, and improving the human race by dint of lots of exercise and sports as well as by eugenics.

Before the war eugenics (and racism and anti-semitism) was a popular pastime of governments worldwide, and the whole "master race" thing went down pretty well. The US had an actual scientific program to research human genetics, in the context of improving the gene pool and implementing evidence-based eugenic legislation, some of which was still on the books substantially after the end of the war.

Had Hitler not combined these relatively normal (for the time) eugenics interests with such comprehensive mechanisation and process improvement, not to mention invading a bunch of countries, there would not have been a war and we'd probably still be sending kids on Nazi summer camp. And forcibly sterilising people with mental health problems.

You can't interpret people's pre-war actions through a post-Holocaust lens.
posted by emilyw at 7:19 AM on August 11 [18 favorites]


OP writes "and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue." I'm willing to believe this is a typo, but it is what it is.

First of all, they're quoting the article, which goes on to say that it wasn't the Boy Scouts. Second, even the context in that excerpt points to ambiguity (i.e., "looks like").

Speaking of forgotten history, NB that there were Young Pioneers of America camps backed by the Communist Party at this time as well.

They were big into indoctrination back then. Same as it ever was, I suppose.


Actually, your links point out that it was one group, and apart from the one reference to the Soviets, it was reflective of the actual American versions of Socialist and Communist actions of the time period. Considering those were far closer to social democracy than the "the Russians want to steal our precious bodily fluids" bogeyman, comparing it to the Volksdeutsche is troublesome. I think it's fair to say that "a set of Economic Demands for young workers, including the 6 hour day, the 5 day work week, minimum wages, annual vacation pay, and prohibition of using workers under age 20 in dangerous occupations" devoting themselves "to fight against the rise of an American White Guardist organization, whether it call itself the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the Fascisti, or something different altogether" is in no way comparable to advocating against trade unionism, let alone enthusiastically fomenting anti-Semitism in the US.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:19 AM on August 11 [8 favorites]


There was a teacher in my hometown that was fired for starting one of these. He would become well known during the war as Lord Hee Haw.

Somewhere, Roy Clark is pickin' but no longer grinnin'.
posted by delfin at 7:21 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


emilyw: Had Hitler not combined these relatively normal (for the time) eugenics interests with such comprehensive mechanisation and process improvement, not to mention invading a bunch of countries, there would not have been a war and we'd probably still be sending kids on Nazi summer camp. And forcibly sterilising people with mental health problems.

What does "comprehensive mechanisation and process improvement" even mean here?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:27 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I found this article, Americans for Hitler which talks about Nazi-leaning (and anti-Nazi-leaning) German-Americans before the war, useful for understanding pre-war German-American culture:
“Hitler is the friend of Germans everywhere,” one girl in a Nazi youth camp remembered being told, “and just as Christ wanted little children to come to him, Hitler wants German children to revere him.”
and in this quote, it's made clear that the marketing seems to have been "Like Boy/Girl Scouts, only German!" which would have been appealing to folks who wanted their children to hold onto their heritage/history.
Children were an important part of the Bund. Members sent their children to places such as Camp Hindenburg in Wisconsin each summer to participate in a youth program the Bund compared to boy and girl scouting. The camps were also gathering places for adult activities—everything from picnics to rallies. At these camps, children dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style, with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Although the Bund denied it, children were taught Nazi ideology.
In any case, I found that article useful for better understanding German-Americans before the war.
posted by julen at 7:30 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I thought it was fairly popular knowledge Hitler was Time's 1938 Man of the Year.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:31 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I wonder, though, at the specific location of the Nazi summer camp of the OP, at Windham in Greene County, NY? Whether there was - even then - some/any ideological provocation/statement in its address?
Could be, but I actually think there were a lot of resorts and vacation communities in the Catskills, not just the Jewish ones that are the best known. I think the Jewish resorts might actually initially have been a response to antisemitic policies by other places: Jews had to create their own hotels because they couldn't stay or wouldn't have been welcome at the mainstream ones. At any rate, I know there were vacation communities in that area that catered to Italian and Irish-Americans. I think that it a popular vacation spot for people from New York City, rather than being specifically a Jewish vacation spot.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:37 AM on August 11


Which is not to deny that the Bund was really antisemitic or that its members frequently harassed, intimidated and sometimes attacked Jewish people.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:38 AM on August 11


I thought it was fairly popular knowledge Hitler was Time's 1938 Man of the Year.

You know who else was Time's Person of the Year?
posted by zombieflanders at 7:38 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


I wonder what the children who attended those camps grew up believing.

Slight derail: You might try picking up Gunter Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion in which he stated he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. I haven't read it but might be of interest to you. Keep in mind that Grass is a fairly controversial figure.
posted by Fizz at 7:49 AM on August 11


What does "comprehensive mechanisation and process improvement" even mean here?

A trite euphemism for the Holocaust, I think. I believe he's intimating that Adolf Hitler was the Henry Ford of eugenics.
posted by The Confessor at 8:01 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Actually, your links point out that it was one group, and apart from the one reference to the Soviets, it was reflective of the actual American versions of Socialist and Communist actions of the time period.

I can't speak for IndigoJones' intentions, but your response seems orthogonal to me. The Young Pioneers' League was, indeed, the CPUSA version of a Scout-type organization. It existed in order to instill their values into children. That's not a commentary on the various "good" and "bad" qualities of CPUSA at the time, or through history. I mean, "indoctrination" is typically a pejorative term, but the root idea is still the same, no matter who does it: an organization sets up a club for youth, with the aim of raising children with that organization's values.

See also, Sokol.

Or, hell, the JCC I went to as a kid. I'm fairly certain that they tried to instill Jewish values into me...
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:29 AM on August 11


The Bund was ahead of it's time as a multicultural American institution. The Aryan La Raza, if you will.
posted by TSOL at 8:30 AM on August 11


A trite euphemism for the Holocaust, I think. I believe he's intimating that Adolf Hitler was the Henry Ford of eugenics.

Surely that was Henry Ford.
posted by atrazine at 8:34 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Tomorrow Belongs To Me
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:36 AM on August 11


I mean, "indoctrination" is typically a pejorative term, but the root idea is still the same, no matter who does it

And the way we describe an action, such as with a term that has a negative connotation, indicates the value assigned to that action. To describe something as "indoctrination" is to describe it as having bad qualities instead of good qualities (e.g. to say a group "instills" values).
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:36 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I haven't seen the video, but could the lightning bold flag perhaps be the flag of the British Union of Fascists?
posted by Space Coyote at 8:41 AM on August 11


And the way we describe an action, such as with a term that has a negative connotation, indicates the value assigned to that action. To describe something as "indoctrination" is to describe it as having bad qualities instead of good qualities (e.g. to say a group "instills" values).

Sure, but the history of CPUSA, etc. is too complicated for me to judge somebody else for seeing them in a negative light. Such a derail would be a whole other rabbit hole, for its own post.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:42 AM on August 11


Reminds me of Howard W. Campbell Jr., of Vonnegut's novel Mother Night.
posted by adamboro at 8:57 AM on August 11


Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein is a recent book with some information on those camps.
posted by maurice at 9:14 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Some crazy air at 23:53. Height-heit!
posted by sylvanshine at 9:18 AM on August 11


The show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" included the joke(?) that, as children, some of the characters had been sent to one of these camps by their grandfather -- in 1981.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 9:35 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the German-American Bund used to be quite big, especially in cities with big German immigrant populations like Chicago.

Before WWI, the US was closer, diplomatically, to Germany than they were to the UK -- indeed, until 1910, the default enemy in US war plans was the British. Of course, we were far closer to France than either of them, but in terms of diplomacy, we were really distant from all of Europe. To the US, Europe had it's own problems to deal with, and we were not getting involved. The Democratic Party slogan in 1916 for Wilson was "He kept us out of the war!"

German American immigrants generally spoke for Neutrality but were very careful to state that they'd support the US if they did enter the war. Irish American immigrants were *very* strongly against the war and even more so against joining the British side. A big part of why the US stayed cool to the UK diplomatically was the Irish American population, which was very politically active.

This is why it took until well after the Germans decided to start unrestricted submarine warfare and sunk the RMS Lusitania for the US to join the war -- but remember that the Lusitania was sunk in May, 1915. After that, the US slowly moved away from a pure Neutrality position. It took a lot more -- the sinking of several other ships, the Zimmermann Telegram, and finally, the announcement of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, after Germany agreed to abandon it after the SS Republic sinking, before Wilson was convinced to ask for a formal declaration of war.

And after WWI? We went right back to Neutrality. It was a stronger neutrality -- the US Navy was significantly built up in this period, the US Army Air Corps was formed, and the peacetime Army and Marine Corps were significantly larger than they were pre-WWI, but politically, we didn't want anything to do with it, and while we were much more pro-British in the 1930s*, we still refused to get involved until the Pearl Harbor attack.

And then, of course, we didn't declare war on Germany until they declared war on the US.

So, the idea of German Influence in the mid-war years, even after the fall of the Weimar Republic? It's not surprising. Germany held a quite successful olympics in 1936**, Kristallnacht, the first really public event that dramatically showed the antisemitism in the Nazi Party, wasn't until November of 1938. In 1937, Germany was just another country to most Americans, and to German-Americans, it was home.

And more importantly, home was in far better shape, economically, than it had been during the last years of the Weimar Republic. To Germans and German Americans in 1937, Hitler was the Chancellor who'd turned the economy around and made life livable again.

1939 would change things in the US a bit, 1941 would do so dramatically, and it wasn't until 1944 that the US population as a whole started to realize just how badly things really were in Germany because of the Nazis.

But in 1936-1937? Germany was strong, Hitler made it strong, and a lot of people in the US admired him and them for that. So, seeing the Volksbund here? I'd be more surprised if it hadn't been here!



The first big evidence of the change was Leonard Wood's and Teddy Roosevelt's Preparedness Movement. It was very controversial, but it was unthinkable before the Lusitania was sunk. The Preparedness Movement itself accomplished little, but it was clearly a sea change that led to the US dramatically increasing the size of the Army and Navy starting in 1916.

* While we had plans to fight just about everybody (Plan White was the plan to fight Just Canada!) by this time, the US Navy's default enemy had changed to Japan, and Japanese armament decisions led to changes in US warship design far more than UK changes did.

During World War I, the US had sent BatDiv 9, consisting of the battleships New York, Wyoming, Florida and Delaware, under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, to join the British Fleet. There they served as the Sixth Battle Squadron of the British Grand Fleet.

This turned almost all the officers and men serving, including Admiral Rodman, into Anglophiles. This was really the first time that the US Navy saw the Royal Navy as anything but an enemy, and it was a real ahem sea change in the US Navy.

Come WWII, the US Navy was vastly more willing to work with the Royal Navy, with only a few notable exceptions. The most notable of those was FADM Chester Nimitz, who really didn't want to bother with the British Pacific Fleet, and demanded that it be completely self supporting. His fleet commanders, though, had no problems with making sure the BPF got whatever fuel and ammo it needed, and whatever time in port to make repairs.

**BTW, the incident with Hitler refusing to shake hands with Jesse Owens? Never happened. On the first day of the Games, Hitler shook hands with German medalists, but no others. The IOC asked him to either do so for all medalists, or none. He chose none. Owens himself reports that "But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back." Indeed Owens felt he was treated far better by the Germans than he was by his own country, and the sad thing is this is almost certainly true.
posted by eriko at 9:38 AM on August 11 [23 favorites]


I thought it was fairly popular knowledge Hitler was Time's 1938 Man of the Year.

This is true, but it's worth reading the actual article Time wrote for that Man of the Year edition. It's a swingeing attack on Hitler as a menace to democratic nations everywhere and a prediction of the great war to come:
But the figure of Adolf Hitler strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror. Not the mere fact that the Führer brought 10,500,000 more people (7,000,000 Austrians, 3,500,000 Sudetens) under his absolute rule made him the Man of 1938. Japan during the same time added tens of millions of Chinese to her empire. More significant was the fact Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.
"Man of the Year" has never, ever been seen by Time as an endorsement or a value-judgment. It's about who has had the greatest impact--good or ill--on the world in the previous year.
posted by yoink at 9:50 AM on August 11 [10 favorites]


Uppity Pigeon #2: "The "Don't read the comments" protocols are set at Omega Level for that video BTW."

Yeah, you ain't lying. Every comment but one is from a Nazi, and that one is just a couple of numbers --

*googles 14-88*

Ah, never mind. Jesus.
posted by brundlefly at 10:02 AM on August 11


I am never surprised by Nazi support in the NYC area. I went to Catholic high school on Long Island. The school's retreat house was once the mansion of a German-American woman. The tour they took us on stopped in the boiler room where the large steam boiler had the swastika proudly showing in the cast iron front. As far as I can recall, it was imported from Germany but you never know.
posted by tommasz at 10:13 AM on August 11




I am never surprised by Nazi support in the NYC area. I went to Catholic high school on Long Island. The school's retreat house was once the mansion of a German-American woman. The tour they took us on stopped in the boiler room where the large steam boiler had the swastika proudly showing in the cast iron front. As far as I can recall, it was imported from Germany but you never know.

Neither German-made, nor German inspired. People forget how widespread the use of the swastika symbol was before the Nazi party made it it's emblem--and they find it hard to believe that prior to the Nazi use it had no associations of any kind with antisemitism or race purity or any of that crap. It was just a good-luck symbol. The boiler you'd have seen would have been part of the "Swasteeka" series made by the Aird-Don co.
posted by yoink at 10:20 AM on August 11 [8 favorites]


Folks.. the American Hitler Youth were an anti-Jewish group. The Boy Scouts of America are an anti-gay group. Don't get them confused.
posted by Nelson at 10:24 AM on August 11 [8 favorites]


Yeah, swastikas were a really common decorative motif in the US around the turn of the 20th century. If you see a swastika in an old building in the US, it's probably not a Nazi thing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:30 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


"Man of the Year" has never, ever been seen by Time as an endorsement or a value-judgment. It's about who has had the greatest impact--good or ill--on the world in the previous year.

At least until they chickened out in 2001
posted by TedW at 10:31 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The lightning bolt flag: The single "lightning bolt" means communal spirit. Apparently the Nazis used several runes to signify certain of their values. On the surface they seem laudable, and I guess some of them can be traced to ancient times. Google Nazi runes for more info.

I noticed (in the film) that the activities seemed to have been well-considered. The boxers and wrestlers, for example, showed a considerable degree of coaching. Likewise, the blanket toss indicated no small degree of gymnastic instruction. I thought other activities were well-organized. For example, the grass-drills and rifle instruction, though not very well presented in the film, indicated that at least one of the counselors had infantry training.

In sum, these boys received training similar to what I enjoyed, both as a Boy Scout, and as a member of the California Cadet Corps. I presume that basic instruction in nationalism is about the same world-wide. Nothing in the film indicates the quality of the political instruction these boys received. It's easy enough to link these boys to the awful impact of Nazism, but it would be better to put this film in some sort of context.

That's to say that America itself was deeply faceted: in those days, racism was not just a social issue, it was institutional. We've passed laws trying to remedy this, but, now our institutions seems to have learned to simply ignore the laws we don't want to enforce. I liked the link someone made to Mother Night. Vonnegut's moral in that story was "Be careful what you pretend to be, because that's what you will become."

If you think about it, all military instructions works that way. They teach you to act like a soldier, then they let time do its work. This is my notion of a double-edged tactic: works for soldiers as well as all those little Enders out there pretending to be saviors of the universe.
posted by mule98J at 10:41 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I just went down a Google rabbit-hole on the history of the swastika in Scouting. Very interesting. The swastika was a major Scouting emblem from fairly early on in the days of the Scouting movement. Apparently it was discontinued in 1934 after the rise of the Nazis caused a wave of protest against the symbol. Here's one good summary of the history.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on August 11


You can't interpret people's pre-war actions through a post-Holocaust lens.

Historical judgment is an odd thing. Whenever people begin to criticize group X or person Y in the past, there are usually quickly mustered a series of contextual facts and popular beliefs at the time to exculpate, or at least complicate, the morality of believing or doing Z back then.

But talking about what "most people" did or believed is, I think, a red herring. When I judge someone in the present, it does indeed matter what the context is, but it doesn't really matter what "most people" believe. Most Republicans deny global warming. Does that mean I don't judge a Republican I encounter who denies global warming? Many people are in favor of lower taxes on the rich, reduced help for the poor, and quite a lot of other hateful things. Does the fact that these beliefs are endemic now mean I don't judge the believers? Now, were it the case that there were no way for those folks to have figured out the truth, then I would probably cut them some slack. But what matters is whether they could have known better, and should have known better -- not whether there were many other ignoramuses out there.

So while my judgment of these groups is not through a post-hoc WWII lens, I do not think it is coincidental that the things they did stand for I already dislike:

At these camps, children dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style, with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies.

"just as Christ wanted little children to come to him, Hitler wants German children to revere him"

Before the war eugenics (and racism and anti-semitism) was a popular pastime of governments worldwide, and the whole "master race" thing went down pretty well.

That's to say that America itself was deeply faceted: in those days, racism was not just a social issue, it was institutional.

So far as I understand it, the Nazi ideology was a lot to do with healthy strong (Aryan) children, and improving the human race by dint of lots of exercise and sports as well as by eugenics.


I oppose all these things, and millions of people on the left did so at the time. The anti-semitism, for instance, while common-place, was not at all cryptic, and well-criticized by contemporaries. Again, the judgment of the past is like the judgment of the present, inasmuch as being in the median is not what matters. What matters is whether you should -- and could -- know better. Military-style drilling, eugenics, flag-revering, racism, "improving the human race by dint of" anything -- these are all things that were opposed by plenty at the time for exactly the same reason I oppose them now -- they are authoritarian right-wing values. They aren't by any means nazi-ish in themselves, nor are all those on the current right nazis in favoring them, but certainly I believe that what keeps me from it now would have kept me from it them, and would have had me sourly commenting on it then over the newspaper as I sourly comment on it now online. Maybe it's prejudice to think that it's no coincidence that the anti-gay militarism of the scouts could be confused for the anti-semitic militarism of the Nazi party, but again, back then the Nazi's were not holocaust-makers, just another right-wing organization. But that's plenty enough to criticize them for, then as now.
posted by chortly at 11:01 AM on August 11 [5 favorites]


The Bund was ahead of it's time as a multicultural American institution. The Aryan La Raza, if you will.

I guess this is supposed to be a joke, but it's a pretty offensive one.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:13 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


Never mind the Scouts--the 45th Infantry Division (the unit that cartoonist Bill Mauldin belonged to in WWII) had a swastika on its infantry insignia until the 30s, when it was replaced by a thunderbird.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:13 AM on August 11


I guess this is supposed to be a joke, but it's a pretty offensive one.

Or a crank dogwhistle. The Alex Jones brigade thinks La Raza is the first wave of a "reconquista" from Mexico.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:26 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


I wonder what the children who attended those camps grew up believing.

I've commented on this previously on Metafilter, but my grandparents grew up in the DJV in Germany and moved to upstate New York in the late 40s after the Russians nationalized both of their family fortunes.

The short version of their beliefs would be "Never again." Documentary footage of the horrors of the Holocaust, the evils of fascism and exhortations to never be a part of such a thing started around age 8 for both their children and grandchildren (they lived a 5 minute drive from us so we visited every weekend) and continued throughout childhood.

Included in this was familiarization with Jewish culture, attending Seders, that sort of thing.

Unlike the rigid fundamentalist evangelical indoctrination we got from literally everyone we knew at all times, this aspect of my upbringing was done with a well-calculated, firm but gentle hand - I never felt the slightest desire to rebel against it as a teenager, and if I ever have kids it's something I very much want to pass on to them, as well.

Subjectively, beyond their shocked consciences and guilt, they felt that they had been deceived by their government, that they were victims of media manipulation techniques unparalleled in history, and faced a lifetime of stigmatization for something they had no real awareness or understanding of. But regardless of whether it was truly their "fault" at a personal level, they were mostly determined that their descendants never participate in anything of that nature ever again.
posted by Ryvar at 12:34 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I should probably mention: they were both very young throughout most of the war, hence the "no understanding of". My grandfather was the older of the two, and - unlike Pope Benedict XVI - actually succeeded at ducking the SS conscription squads when they started rounding up 13 and 14-year-olds to man the last-gasp artillery crews at the end.
posted by Ryvar at 12:44 PM on August 11


Most Republicans deny global warming. Does that mean I don't judge a Republican I encounter who denies global warming?

I think it's pretty pointless deciding just how much we judge people who are largely dead now, from Hitler down to a kid who enjoyed the activities at Nazi summer camp.

I do think it's important to contextualise this period of history, precisely so that we can see that Nazism was a normal thing that happened to normal regular people like us. Right now, Nazis are seen as so monstrous and "other" that even mentioning them in a conversation is a reason to give up on the debate as a lost cause. But if it's possible for regular people to follow popular and reasonable logic and end up sending their kids to Nazi summer camp - or worse; then regular people need to apply a higher level of scrutiny to their own beliefs and actions - even people who are quite sure that in 1938, they would have chosen the other pill.

The fact that it's possible to choose the other pill is what makes it worth even thinking about.
posted by emilyw at 12:52 PM on August 11


I do think it's important to contextualise this period of history, precisely so that we can see that Nazism was a normal thing that happened to normal regular people like us.

While I agree 100% with this, I suspect that by 1937 nobody much in the US thought of "Nazi camp" as "normal" and uncontroversial. This isn't like "OMG, so-and-so supported eugenics in the 1920s!!" when, in fact, that really was incredibly widely accepted. By the mid-30s mainstream US opinion was increasing anti-Nazi, and those who weren't anti-Nazi knew themselves to be out of step with mainstream opinion. Consider this matter-of-fact piece of reporting on the German America Bund from the NYT in September 1938:
BUND IS NOT INVITED TO GERMAN DAY FETE
________________________

Rebuff to Nazi Group Revealed by Conference Here
________________

Controversies between nazified German-Americans in the metropolitan area and those who are organized in the German-American Conference became known yesterday after the latter's refusal to extend an invitation to the the German-American Bund for the celebration of German Day in Madison Square Garden on Oct. 2.

The German-American Conference, which, in addition to the Steuben Society of American, includes twelve of the leading German American organizations, declared in a statement in the New York Staats-Zeitung that "successful collaboration with the leaders of the German-American Bund is not only impossible but is actually being disturbed by the bund's management."

The German-American Bund, official Nazi organization in this country, is under the leadership of Fritz Kuhn. Although the Steuben Society resisted the bund in 1936, sixteen German-American organizations, including the Nazi group, were represented at last year's German Day celebration when Dr. H.H. Dieckhoff, German Ambassador, addressed an audience of 20,000 persons.

In its declaration, the German-American Conference accuses Mr. Kuhn of having "cracked up German-Americans in a critical period."

"The attacks and insults of the Bund agains the organizations of the German-American Conference have taken an aspect which, to express it mildly, the overwhelming majority of German-Americans rejects as unethical," the statement declares. "We were not willing to expose ourselves to the senseless demands and rude threats of the Bund leaders as last year and therefore refused to ask them to our committee meetings."

As a counter-action, the bund has arranged its own group meetings for Oct. 2. They will be held in Brookly, Jamaica, the Bronx, Astoria and in the Turnhalle at Lexington Avenue at Eighty-fifth Street.

The Staats-Zeitung publishes today a reply of the Bund leadership, accusing the conference of being "Jew-obedient" and rejecting the accusation that a "break-up in the German-American ranks" had taken place because of the Bund's attitude.
I mean, this isn't an op-ed or anything like that. It's just a piece of matter-of-fact reporting; but it's clear from this that the organization that speaks for German Americans sees the Bund as an extremist embarrassment dangerous to the position of US citizens of German extraction--and this is in 1938--before war has been even been declared in Europe. And it's clear from the way the Times piece is written that it expects its readers to see this as common sense. The very use of the adjective "nazified" is clear in its view of Nazi ideology as the invading "other"--very analogous to the way "communist" was used in reporting in the 1950s.
posted by yoink at 1:16 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]


I do think it's important to contextualise this period of history, precisely so that we can see that Nazism was a normal thing that happened to normal regular people like us.


emilyw
I understand the point you are trying to make - but of right from the start your "normal regular people like us" excludes normal regular Jewish people, of course. You can't have a superior (Aryan) race without an inferior "other" to compare it with.

I think this period of history does in fact require some care to be taken when you start talking about people like us:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:50 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I think this period of history does in fact require some care to be taken when you start talking about people like us:)

I think by "like us" emilyw just mean "human beings." Because the point is that it's true for any value of "like us." That is "normal regular Jewish people" are capable, under the right circumstances, of being seduced into some pretty hateful forms of ethnocentric nationalism, as the past few decades has repeatedly shown. It's "normal" for people in general--homo sapiens sapiens--to be vulnerable to cultural/political narratives that paint them as belonging to a specially exalted group of human beings (Serbs, Americans, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus--whatever) and paint their opponents (or a convenient bunch of scapegoats) as belonging to a specially degraded and inferior group (Romani, Mexicans, Palestinians, Jews etc. etc.). If you start from the assumption that only specially "evil" people can be sucked in by such discourses you're disarming yourself from the struggle against them.
posted by yoink at 2:07 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]


The whole eugenics thing back then was part of progressivism. When I was researching for a paper topic, I found some magazine/newspaper publications talking about "great programs in castrating retarded people in California" and the like. Unfortunately there was a lack of actual records in the databases so I had to choose a different topic.
posted by halifix at 2:08 PM on August 11


Could we please, please have this conversation without anyone writing as though their fellow MeFi friends are actually Nazi apologists, covert fascist sleeper agents, racists (or whatever other bad-guys are connected to a subject, e.g. MRAs), just because they're taking a different tack towards the discussion than you're expecting?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:31 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


>Actually, your links point out that it was one group, and apart from the one reference to the Soviets, it was reflective of the actual American versions of Socialist and Communist actions of the time period

Nazis were widely recognized as brutes in 1937 but were still warming up; Communists, however, already had mass murder on its hands. It's no good saying there's only one reference to Soviets - the ideology had already proven what it was capable of.

Put it this way - tell me you're a believer in, say, ISIS and I'm not going to give you a pass just because you happen to be American.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:56 PM on August 11


Nazis were widely recognized as brutes in 1937 but were still warming up; Communists, however, already had mass murder on its hands. It's no good saying there's only one reference to Soviets - the ideology had already proven what it was capable of.

Your link I was responding to was from 1930, two years before the Holodomor and several more before the purges. So what you're talking about hadn't even happened yet, let alone received plaudits from American socialist and communist organizations (which AFAIK were never uttered anyway). And no, "the ideology" hadn't already proven any such capability, nor would it do so. The dictatorial versions of it imposed by people like Stalin would, but the fairly large part that American socialism and communism played in progressive politics in the late 19th and early 20th century US certainly didn't. Which, by the way, were strains of politics that all pre-dated Soviet Russia by several decades. And like I said, today they would likely be closer to modern social democracy than Soviet-style.
posted by zombieflanders at 3:31 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The thing is, in 1937 it was probably possible to think that there was no contradiction between being a good American and sending your kid to Nazi camp.

I'm probably biased, as a WWII history buff and reenactor, but I'm not so sure that the parents of these kids can be let off so easily. Though it's true that no one could have predicted the mass genocide and concentration camps, the youth camps were still based around extremely prejudice principles. People back then may not have known what the Nazi regime was about to do, but the American youth camps were still promoting racism and antisemitism in a very open way that the parents would have known about. They would have known that they were sending their children to a raciest camp, it wasn't a secret or anything.
posted by Shouraku at 9:45 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Racism was mainstream then, and many members of the American establishment supported Germany's policies.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:18 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The Hitlers of Long Island
posted by Sticherbeast at 13:15 on August 11


Get used to it, Hitler.
posted by duffell at 6:31 PM on August 17 [1 favorite]


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